In a contest between two teams that were winless in 2023, the Texas Tech basketball team found a way to finally make enough plays to experience victory once again. Answering every charge mounted by the home-standing LSU Tigers, Tech hung on for a much-needed 76-68 win on Saturday in the program’s final appearance in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, an annual event that will come to an end this year after a decade of existence.
The reality is that LSU is also an awful team. They’ve now lost eight-straight games, which is how many Mark Adams’ team had dropped since winning their last game of 2022 on December 27th.
Still, beating a bad team is better than losing to one, especially for a team that was as desperate to taste success again as Tech was. Will this win be the one that turns this season around as we look toward the final game of January on Monday night against Iowa State in Lubbock? It’s doubtful.
However, picking up a road win of any kind without the services of the injured Pop Isaacs and Fardaws Aimaq is a step in the right direction for a program that’s been in a nosedive for a month. So let’s look at some key takeaways from the Red Raiders’ cauterizing performance in the bayou.
Hello Kerwin Walton
Making his first start as a Red Raider in place of Isaacs, North Carolina transfer Kerwin Walton put together the type of performance this team envisioned him having on a somewhat regular basis when he was added to the roster this offseason. While no one came into this season expecting the junior to put up 17 points on a game-by-game basis as he did on Saturday in Baton Rouge, it was believed that his 3-point shooting would be a key for this team all season.
However, his lack of defensive acumen and his inability to add literally anything else to the Red Raiders’ efforts this year has forced Walton to the end of Adams’ bench for much of the season. That changed against LSU due to Isaacs’ sprained ankle. Fortunately, Walton responded to his opportunity in a big way hitting 5 of 6 three-pointers.
It wasn’t just that Walton hit outside shots, though. It was that he hit some at absolutely crucial times. With his team down 46-45 after squandering an 8-point halftime lead, Walton would hit 3s on consecutive possessions to stop a 6-0 LSU run that had given the Tigers their first lead of the game. Then, with Tech down 58-57 with 7:19 to go in the game, another Walton long-range dagger would give the Red Raiders the lead for good.
Now, Walton was still awful defensively this afternoon and in 21 minutes of action, he grabbed only one rebound and had no assists or steals proving why he isn’t meant to be a starter. But if he can become a reliable sniper off of Adams’ bench when Isaacs returns, it will do wonders for a team that often struggles to find offense, especially from beyond the arc.
Fisher does the dirty work
True freshman Elijah Fisher just recently turned 19 years old. So it is understandable that he’s looked rather overwhelmed more often than not in his first swim through the Big 12.
However, on Saturday, the Canadian who could still be in high school had he not chosen to reclassify into the class of 2022 last offseason, was a huge factor for Tech. Though Fisher’s offensive game remains a work in progress (and that’s being kind), he was able to do all the dirty work that his team needed him to do against the Tigers.
In 22 minutes off the bench, he grabbed a career-high nine rebounds (including three off of the offensive glass) while also coming up with a pair of steals and a block. At 6-foot-6, Fisher is one of the few players on this roster with the type of length and athleticism needed to execute Adams’ defensive game plan. Therefore, he could play a meaningful role for Tech moving forward, especially if he plays as aggressively as he did in this game.
Obanor takes on leadership role
All season, and especially during Tech’s 8-game skid, we have been begging for super-senior Kevin Obanor to step forward and put this team on his shoulders. Seemingly not a natural vocal leader, he does have the skillset that can change games with his play given his ability to hit open shots and crash the glass.
However, in four of his previous five games, he’d failed to surpass the 10-point plateau, a huge reason for the team’s struggles in conference play. Fortunately, he seems to be turning a corner in his last two outings.
After 20 points and 8 boards against West Virginia on Wednesday night, Obanor responded with 22 points and 4 boards against LSU. Setting the early tone with Tech’s first 8 points of the game, he ensured that his team would come out of the locker room and punch LSU in the mouth first as Tech jumped out to a 22-12 lead in the game’s opening nine-plus minutes.
Obanor isn’t a player who is going to pull a Keenan Evans or Jarrett Culver and take over games all by himself. Rather, he has to function within a system in order to be most effective. Still, Tech needs him to be one of the most impactful components of their attack as he was on Saturday when his team needed a win in the worst of ways. If he can continue to play at this level, this won’t be the Red Raiders’ final win this season.
Going to miss the SEC Challenge
Over the years the Big 12/SEC Challenge has come to be an enjoyable late-January break from the rigors of conference play. Allowing teams to forget about the pressure of the league race for one Saturday, this event has brought some nice national attention to the two conferences by providing some intriguing non-conference matchups. And given that Tech is now 7-3 all-time in the event, Red Raider fans are probably somewhat sad to see it end.
Of course, Tech would trade a win over LSU for a win in Big 12 play, especially this year since LSU does nothing to help the Red Raiders in terms of their resume. Still, this break from league action might have been just what Tech needed in order to find their footing.
The return to the conference grind will be a beast though with four of the next five opponents being ranked. That’s why this win was especially important for Adams who can now turn to the second half of the Big 12 slate with his team having gained some much-needed confidence.